Remember the award-winning writer who was told by a topnotch New York agent that America wasn’t ready for the happy immigrant story that she had written? Since launching her book in April 2018, both Sweta Vikram and Louisiana Catch have gone a long way.
While the publication was gaining incredible momentum, its author embarked on an entirely different quest. After accepting the Voices of the Year Award and travelling to Europe, her American book tour was interrupted unexpectedly due to Sweta’s serious illness. Unable to eat, walk, write or even breathe, she was faced with hard questions about life: As a writer and a yogi, who am I if I don’t write or practice? If life is this fragile, what is my legacy? Will I ever bounce back? How does this end? We all ask these questions at different points in life. Sweta’s experience may give us some answers.
Here we are, a year later.
So much has changed!
Can you even recall the emotions you felt right around the time of the book launch? Was there excitement, anticipation, anxiety?
All of those! It is a very vulnerable time when you’re putting your work out there. People with kids tell me it is like exposing your kid for the world to judge. The book is done and that leaves you wondering about so many things. How are people going to engage with it? Will people show up to the book launch? While there is a lot of excitement, there are also different levels of anxiety. You are thinking on a much deeper level: Will people like it? Will they get value out of my work?
My book’s launch was at a Lululemon store, which was amazing. First off, they’re my favourite sportswear brand and I love what they stand for: empowering domestic violence survivors. They’ve been so helpful throughout the whole process and prepared the whole launch event beautifully. I wanted a nice panel, so we invited a person from the mayor’s office, a psychotherapist, and a meditation teacher, amongst others. It was an intense but very beautiful and informative conversation.
Having said that, I also want to be clear that a book launch is a very small part of a book’s journey.
When the book becomes bigger than the author
When and how did Louisiana Catch gain the momentum I witnessed on your social media? Was there instant feedback or did you have to wait for success?
People spend their time and resources in different ways when it comes to books. I had so many back-to-back events as I am a big believer in having a multi-pronged method of success. As in, I had partnerships and events at bookstores and yoga studios and organizations that empower women. When you have only one thing and it fails, you have to start all over again. So I’d much rather have many things going on, several partnerships and collaborations, so when one thing doesn’t work out, there are others you can fall back on. I’m also inherently an optimist so my focus is much more on the things that are working. And if some things don’t work, you quickly learn from it. You’ll never hear me say: “Oh, it was a such a failure or embarrassment.” There’s no such thing. There are always factors you cannot control. A train breaks and people don’t show up. Someone falls sick and they don’t make it to the event. That’s fine and it’s called life. I put in the same energy whether there are 500 people or 5 people at my events.
There was very little time to dwell on things because I had multiple events in multiple cities created for niche audiences in partnership with organizations and bookstores. I had just enough time to sit back and reflect on an event to learn what could be done differently next time. When you have one major event only, there’s too much time to overthink.
How many events did you have going for you?
In New York City, where I live, it was six if not more. Then we had a bunch in California, in Chicago, Maryland, and again in Chicago. A whole lot! I spent a year planning it; it was well thought out. My book is essentially about a sexual assault survivor, so we had the launch planned for April, the month of sexual assault awareness. There are a lot of mental health conversations in the book, so I had a lot of events for the month of May focused around mental health awareness. I even participated at the Twitter offices in New York for a conversation around the role of digital media in women’s safety.
In my opinion, it is great for readers, authors and organizations to work together. I did a lot of work with Twitter around mental health – we were trending one day. I did interviews, podcasts, videos, print interviews – there were many different channels, so it’s hard to say when the success came, because it felt like the whole journey was truly amazing. When I won The Voices of the Year Award in August, past recipients of which have been Chelsea Clinton and founders of the #MeToo movement, that had felt like a huge moment.
I can imagine. That’s big for everyone! Why for you, specifically?
Because you don’t really know who’s reading your book. You don’t have numbers apart from the ones from your publisher. But how do you know how your book impacts the person reading it? What if they borrow it for their sister or even pass it around their circle of friends? I wouldn’t know.
When the award came and I was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize, it was suddenly clear that it was all bigger than just one person. Bigger than me. It is truly humbling to realize that the book is bigger than you. I’d spent six years writing and sharing this story – and then it just exploded, only in the best way possible.
Authors need to do a lot of work around awareness and visibility
I am wondering who the people were who came to your book tour. Did they know the book, did they know you? Or did you have to prove yourself somehow?
Well, yes and no. It depends on the city. In NYC, where I have my connections, people might know me. Authors need to do a lot of work around awareness and visibility. Sometimes it is challenging for us because we’ve written the book and could use someone else to go out there and spread the word. That’s not going to work in today’s world. You have to meet your publicist or publisher midway and do a lot of work yourself. You’d be doing a disservice to your readers if you didn’t. The bookstore sends out the flyers, but then you also reach out to your network.
For the most part, our work is known in a certain space, but then it is not known in the majority of spaces. Be ready that out of 150 people invited to an event, only five might show up. Still, it’s five new people you’ve connected with. And it is also the bookstore owner you get to speak with, and these are such valuable conversations and connections.
This April, we celebrated the one-year-anniversary of Louisiana Catch in Chicago, and the book club organizer could not have been more generous. Imagine – she cooked Indian food although she is not Indian, she made quiches (which are my weakness), and managed to bring diverse cultures and professional women together. She herself is a psychologist, so there were a lot of people from her field who were also avid readers, and we had some lovely conversations around the table.
You mentioned that sometimes books become bigger than their authors. While that’s exciting, it is also scary. How to let go of that control?
That’s when my yoga practice comes very handy. Yoga teaches you not to be attached to the outcomes of your efforts. That’s why I am not too attached to both success and failure. They both affect me – I can’t say that I don’t give a damn! – but how long it affects me is often very short lived. I realize there is life outside of writing: I am a wife, a daughter, a friend. There come responsibilities with these roles, and I love them. Writing is a big part of who I am, but that’s not the only thing that defines me. That clarity and healthy detachment really helps.
I can’t control whether people love or hate my book. The dream, the desire, the prayers would always be there. We want people to love our book, but everybody doesn’t have to like everything or agree on the same thing. Someone has reached out about a possibility of turning the book into a movie and of course you are excited and you want it to happen, but at the same time, there are no guarantees. You celebrate today, but it doesn’t mean you have to hold your breath forever. The book now has a life of its own. And that’s OK. I am already thinking of my next book.
On the importance of building breaks, but also keeping busy
Louisiana Catch won prizes and recognitions. Did you expect any of this? And if it was unexpected, how were you able to soak it in as your reality and rise to the occasion?
What really helps is that I love public speaking. I always have. Even when in boarding school, I was always the MC. Public speaking comes very naturally to me and I don’t prep for it. So giving that speech came from a very authentic and honest place. I think I was much more emotional the moment I found out that I’d won this. Onstage, though, I was already calm. There are also mixed feelings involved: you are sad that it’s over and feel a certain emptiness that nothing this big will ever come your way again. I anticipated this and planned for a Eurotrip with my husband. Two days after accepting the award, I was already sipping wine in Budapest and watching opera in Vienna. I didn’t want to have that “now what” moment. For me, it was: “And now, holiday!”
Even when you’re done with your book deadline, most people will tell you to take a month off. I’m not one of those people. I don’t like being in a vacuum. I do take a month off from the book, but I’ll be working on other projects, whether it’s my coaching business or writing articles. That’s how I function best, by taking breaks on a daily basis. Like today, I woke up at 4:30am, worked until 7:00 then went for a long walk. Now I have calls and meetings and then again yoga. I build in these breaks.
I can’t help but remember one post that seemed to make you happier than other recognitions. Your book made it onto a university syllabus or a course curriculum. Why did that mean so much to you?
There are a bunch of colleges and programmes considering the book, and that’s amazing. When it becomes a part of a syllabus, it lives forever. I am entirely grateful for the awards, but it’s a short moment in time. A syllabus or even a book club is an entirely different thing. I mean, remember back to the books you read at school. We are still talking about Mr. Darcy and other characters even now.
When suddenly everything stopped, I feared being forgotten
After Europe, everything stopped for you suddenly. What happened? Can you name the fears and feelings one faces when encountering a serious illness?
The artist’s life is full of insecurities. For some, it can be an unstable paycheck, for others it’s an unhealthy schedule. Imagine all of a sudden, because I fell ill, I had to cancel my book tour and all of that. I had taken a break in August for Europe and was supposed to resume the book tour in September. But that never happened. There is a tremendous amount of fear and insecurity – that you’d be forgotten. That your book would be forgotten. At the same time, you also feel silly, thinking that all that is secondary, and recovery should be your number one priority. You have both of the dialogues simultaneously going on in your head. You feel insecure, all artists do. Even Ernest Hemingway did.
Not just artists, I guess we all do. Was it helpful to uncover these universal threads?
You know whom I learnt my lesson from? An Uber driver. Because there was a time when I couldn’t do anything, even read or write. And for me, writing is a big part of who I am. If I can’t work out, OK, I can manage for some time. But if I can’t even read or write, then who am I?
So I was going to see my doctor one day. The driver was from Bangladesh and asked me where my family was from. When I said India, we started chatting. The reason we got deeper into the conversation was that he’s just won some special award from Uber for excellent service. When I congratulated him, he said: “You know, I had to take a break for six months.” It turned out that a close family relative had become very sick, so he had to quit his driving job as well as other jobs and move back to Bangladesh, and then even to India to get proper health care for his relative. He told me: “A break is just a pause, not an end.” And at that moment, to me, that was beautiful. Up until then, I was fighting what was happening. That day, I surrendered, realizing that nothing lasts forever. I started cultivating hope: I didn’t know when and how, but I knew I would get better.
“A break is just a pause, not an end.”
How did this whole experience change you? Who did you become through this process?
So much pain has come out of it but so much good has, too. I was so out of alignment with the universe, I do realize that – it was a mix of things. When you work for yourself, you do a lot of things without pausing often, because you think of every pause as an opportunity missed. Now I am able to think of a pause as a reflection. And reflection is growth, and growth is good. Literally on a daily basis, I carve out 30 minutes for myself to just be aware of my emotions. It often gets me thinking: How is it that I have so much compassion to give to others and not to myself? When you take care of yourself, you take much better care of others.
What also changed is that I don’t feel FOMO (fear of missing out), at least not that much. I wanted to be there for every friend’s event, to attend every interesting occasion. Now I know I need to sleep eight hours a day. Will that cool event make it onto my priority list if I have to wake up at 4:30 the next morning? I don’t think so. It was harder for me to have that level of confidence before to say no, whereas now I know that my day starts early. I like to work out, to have very productive working hours, spend time with my husband and cook a fresh dinner. All of the priorities are pretty sorted out, which makes my life so much easier now.
On making peace with FOMO as a valuable skill
That’s so interesting because even one year ago you struck me as a person who lives a very balanced lifestyle. It is interesting to see you reflect and actually see the gap.
On paper, I knew these things, but was I practicing them daily? I was practicing yoga daily. I did my meditation, my cardio, my pranayama and Zumba. But then there was “yoga off the mat” which is pausing and reflecting. Building healthier boundaries. When you’re always on the go, you can unconsciously make room for toxic people or situations. And every illness starts from toxicity and bad emotions. Now I’m like: “Being around that person makes my nerves tighten up around the neck. Maybe we should not hang out.” They might still be nice people, but it’s just not working for me. There’s nothing wrong with being careful about what enters my space.
What are the practical implications of living life this differently?
I think my productivity has gone up even more now. Knowing my priorities, my distractions are fewer. If I catch myself battling FOMO, I immediately pause, wait a minute, and get centered.
We live in a world where the culture is overly busy (but not necessarily productive), and that is how we measure our worth. By our levels of busyness. Let’s say what it really is: lack of priorities.
“We live in a world where the culture is overly busy (but not necessarily productive) and that is how we measure our worth.”
The one thing I want to tell people about getting back on my feet and getting my company off the ground again, is to find what is important to you and work on it consistently. Lots of people get frustrated with things, whether it’s an article, a job interview, a deal. They give up too easily. Just because you’ve had this rejection doesn’t mean that you can’t continue. Just keep at it, consistently. Don’t give up just because you’ve had success and don’t give up because you’ve experienced failure.
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Hi, I am Pavla..
Prague-based writer, company content creator, aspiring global journalist and future-of- everything enthusiast.
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Award-winning author Sweta Vikram: “An agent said that America was not ready for a happy immigrant story”
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